Historic Opening Day in Russian Superliga Sees Newbies Zenit Scare Champions CSKA

Originally supposed to kick off in April, the COVID-19 outbreak thwarted any plans the Russian women’s top flight had of starting on time – hell, at one point I even thought we weren’t going to get a season at all. But now, four months later, the first round of matches has finally been played and oh boy, is there plenty to talk about.

During the enforced pandemic-related delay, the league didn’t do itself any favors by not disclosing anything concerning a potential return to training, a schedule, or if there even would be a season. There was complete radio silence on all fronts and the only way to get any sort of updates was through clubs’ social media accounts. Eventually, though, teams did return to training, with Lokomotiv Moscow commencing a return to normality in early June and being the first club to do so.

As time went on, and another month had passed, there was still no official word on when or if the season would start and I began fearing that there would be no Russian women’s football this year. But alas, the start date for the campaign – August 1 – was leaked on the league’s official website, and the closer we got to that holy day, the more tangible details were getting disclosed. Eventually, a schedule was published, and the following day, an even more exciting development was revealed.

The league announced that it had rebranded. The Women’s Football Liga name was dropped in favor of Superliga and a completely new and unique logo was designed. Personally, I didn’t expect Russia to be one of the pioneers of discarding gendered names – especially since the name of CSKA’s precursor, Rossiyanka, literally translates to “Russian woman” – but here we are and they couldn’t have done a better job. The new logo also doesn’t feature a woman with a ponytail anymore, in fact, it doesn’t feature a woman at all.

Defending champions CSKA also announced that they would play their opening day fixture versus debutants Zenit at the VEB Arena, the home of CSKA’s men’s team, in Moscow and not at their usual home in Khimki beyond the city limits of the capital.

The 2020 Superliga season got underway with 2019 Russian Cup winners Zvezda-2005 Perm hosting last season’s second-bottom team Yenisey from Krasnoyarsk. Supporters weren’t allowed inside the stadium but that didn’t stop them from congregating outside and supporting the Stars with drums and chants. The home side ran out 2-1 winners with a first-half brace from captain Olesya Kurochkina, but there was a suspicion of offside on both goals. A strike from Diana Mamedova in the last minute of stoppage time was too little too late for the Siberians.

The main event kicked off afterwards and there was a tangible air of excitement surrounding the game. In one corner, you had the reigning champions CSKA, who almost went unbeaten in 2019 but had some questions hanging over their heads going into the new campaign, and in the other corner you had Zenit, a completely new team backed by the richest club in the country with an inexperienced coach at the helm.

The biggest subject of debate was how the champions would cope with losing captain and goal-scoring rock-at-the-back Ksenia Tsybutovich to Ryazan. Tsybutovich finished 2019 as the team’s top scorer, so who was going to score those goals and who would slot in next to Maria Alekseeva at the heart of defense? The two forwards CSKA signed in the offseason – Ogonna Chukwudi and Lyubov Yashchenko – aren’t known for their prolific goalscoring and the only real center-back options in their thin squad were full-backs. It was either going to be Russian national team star Ksenia Kovalenko or Kazakhstan international Yulia Myasnikova who would have to deputize in central defense and seeing as though Kovalenko has only just begun light training following an ACL injury, it turned out to be the latter. If coach Maksim Zinoviev persists with this pairing, CSKA undoubtedly have the best ball-playing center-back partnership in Eastern Europe, but Myasnikova’s wicked crosses will certainly be missed further upfield.

For Zenit, team selection wasn’t as much of a question mark, and as the anticipation grew and well-wishes from men’s players past and present flooded in, coach Olga Poryadina picked what seemed to be the most obvious starting eleven. The only minor surprises were Alena Belyaeva getting the nod ahead of national team back-up goalkeeper Yulia Grichenko and 17-year-old Nika Belova being handed the number seven shirt and starting. Four former CSKA players were in Zenit’s starting line-up, three of which were part of last season’s title-winning squad, although Lyudmila Shadrina missed the campaign due to injury.

CSKA’s Nadezhda Smirnova and Valeriya Bespalikova were recognized for their 2019 Team of the Season inclusions – with the former also winning the Player of the Year award – prior to kick-off. After the ball got rolling, things got wild real quick. Zenit hit the home side on the counter and Elena Shesterneva scored the first goal in club history after just 1 minute and 50 seconds. Unfortunately for the St. Petersburg side, there was more than enough time for the champions to hit back and they eventually did through Gabrielle Onguéné.

The first goal in club history for Zenit

I checked the view count on the official YouTube stream during the first half expecting there to be perhaps one or two thousand live viewers, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that more than five thousand people were watching at the time – which has since been confirmed as a record – and the video has now amassed well over 50.000 clicks. Had it not been for that nasty pandemic, there could have potentially also been a record crowd at the game with it being played at the VEB Arena during the Russian Premier League offseason, but safety is obviously more important than an attendance milestone.

The topsy-turvy, end-to-end first half finished all square with Zenit giving a very good account of themselves in their first-ever 45 minutes of competitive football. The second half was less exciting until the last few minutes of regular time when CSKA were awarded a controversial penalty. The decision to award the penalty itself wasn’t controversial – former CSKA midfielder Daria Shkvara clearly blocked the ball with her elbow – but the ensuing red card was, as there was no denial of an obvious goalscoring opportunity. The goalkeeper was literally right behind her when she handled the ball, nevertheless, the decision stood and Nadezhda Smirnova made no mistake from the spot to give CSKA all three points. Zenit made the champions work for their win, though; you could tell how much it meant by the celebrations after the spot kick, even goalkeeper Elvira Todua ran the length of the pitch to join up with her teammates. A hard-fought victory for CSKA, but not a result to be ashamed for Zenit.

Elsewhere, 2019 runners-up Lokomotiv Moscow beat third-placed Krasnodar – of course now called FK Krasnodar after the RPL club acquired Kubanochka – by a lone goal from Ukraine international Tatyana Kozyrenko to get their title challenge off to a perfect start. In the final game of the opening round of fixtures, the youngsters of Chertanovo, with an average age of just 19.5 years in their starting eleven, lost to Ryazan on a late strike by Asya Turieva.

The season has been shortened for obvious reasons, with the eight teams only facing each other twice instead of three times. If you want to learn more about the league and the four teams backed by Russian Premier League sides in particular, well you’re in luck because I wrote a comprehensive piece about exactly that a few months back that you can check out here. If you want to watch games, you can do so on the league’s official YouTube channel or website.

Record viewership, exciting football, and fresh, new branding. The start of the 2020 Superliga season was a raging success. Hopefully this momentum can be carried into the rest of the campaign.

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